I’m on my way back to Armenia, but not in too much of a rush. This morning I woke up, had breakfast and headed out with nothing less than an epic mountain-bike ride in mind.
I climbed quiet, steep mountain roads through cool and fragrant pine forests to the upper slopes of the Austrian Alps, near the Italian border, and decided to go for an extended loop of the valley. I rode rocky, rooty single-track trails past high alpine meadows of brown and white cattle, scorched down the mountainsides on dirt tracks through shady woods, stopping only to water the occasional tree, and eventually ending up back at the village, five hours after I’d left, feeling utterly invigorated.
Mountain-biking is my ideal pastime, really. It’s got a little bit of everything I want from a sport. Today I climbed a thousand vertical metres along around 40km of off-road trails. It was fantastic and made lunch taste a hundred times better than normal. It also helped me come to an agreement with my body about my current level of fitness, which I’ve been struggling with since I stopped dragging 50kg of bike and luggage around deserts for months on end, and it re-ignited my appreciation for off-road mountain-biking; arguably the one thing that got me through university and out the other side with a decent degree!
Mountain-biking is actually far more than an endurance exercise of repetitive pedalling, as racing or touring can be, because your whole body is put through its paces. This isn’t necessarily obvious to the observer. But technical trails require all manner of skills. As well as balancing on the bike and turning the pedals, your weight is constantly shifting front to back, compensating for sudden drops and loose gravel climbs. You have to be ready to spring out of the saddle to let the back end of the bike roll over an obstacle without projecting you over the handlebars, with your elbows ready to absorb sudden bumps ahead.
Your pedal position is constantly being tweaked to avoid catching on passing roots and rocks. Your braking must be inch-perfect – front and rear both – to negotiate tricky obstacles, and well-controlled on high-speed descents so you don’t hit a corner too fast or lose too much speed. You have to be entirely in tune with the way your chain, sprockets and pedals interface with each other, so you’re never caught out in the wrong gear on a sudden steep uphill section, forcing an abrupt dismount and a long walk to the top.
You’re scanning the trail ahead of you for hazards. You judge the depth of the stream that crosses your path, how much it will slow you, how much momentum you need to make it across, the stability of the rocks beneath the water, and what you’ll be doing after you’re through – all in the split second before you hit it. Mapping your route through the next ten metres of trail has to become second nature, else you’ll spend hours picking your way through the obstacle course. You need to be able to judge your map and the trail markers and know how much water, food and energy you’re going to need to take along with you, and you need to know how to get the most out of the bike in all conditions, given the effort you’re putting in.
For plain fitness, it’s a complete workout. Your whole-body strength is needed during the violent balancing act you’re dedicating 100% of your attention to when you’re riding the trails themselves. Your endurance is needed for this too, but also for the ride to and from the trails, which is as long or short as you want it to be. Some stick their bikes on the back of a car, or hang them from the outside of a cable-car or chairlift, and skip the hard work (for wimps and professionals only!). Your whole body must be an extension of the bike itself.
And while you can do all of this in an urban setting and get a free and varied audience for your reckless high-speed escapades, it’s out in the relative wilds that the sport comes into its own. You can get away from the cars, up into the world’s most spectacular landscapes, and immerse yourself independently, responsibly, and at a pace that hikers can only dream of. With the feel-good factor you’ll get from those endorphins, you’re likely to enjoy the experience a whole lot more as well. And it’s all human-powered.
If you’re really serious, it’s enough to warrant educating yourself in emergency first-aid and in more thorough bike maintenance and repairs. And if you’re willing to sacrifice a little manoeuvrability and put in the extra effort, you can turn an off-road ride into a very simple and versatile expedition, with enviable scope for getting well and truly out into the wilderness in the knowledge that only the most determined hiker or biker could get so far off the beaten track. The week I spent off-road in the Highlands of Scotland with Andy and Mark in 2006 was something like this, and remains to this day one of the most memorable and satisfying weeks of my life.
Last but not least, every red-blooded male needs fancy gadgets and shiny things to repair, coo over and polish obsessively, and in this regard mountain bikers are utterly spoilt!
If you’re starting out mountain-biking, or thinking about it, I can heartily recommend the Lanai from Kona as a great first mountain bike with loads of potential for upgrade once the temptation of shiny bits in the mountain-biking magazines becomes too much. Andy and I have both gone for this bike to get our other halves started in cycle-touring. It’s similar to the bike I hired today – solid, simple, affordable, highly rated, highly capable and will take all the abuse you’re likely to throw at it.
(If you’re more interested in the fancy gadgets and shiny stuff, you could always salivate over the utterly ridiculous Kona Operator…)